Monday, July 22, 2013

Thoughts on guilt and the divine ledger-keeper

One of the things about having drunk deeply of the font of Catholicism and being obsessive-compulsive—and not the fun, party conversation sort—is that you get to feel guilty a lot, even when you know you shouldn't. The old moral theologians called it scrupulosity.
A religious sense of guilt assumes a god, a god who keeps track of our transgressions, and is at least disappointed in us if we fail to match his expectations. (The fact that this sense of guilt can survive the death of the religious metaphysics that underpins it is fascinating, but a topic for another day.)
Of course, the god of the Abrahamic religions—God—is just such a being. God, unlike the God-of-the-Philosophers, is a person who enters into relationships with humans, a person who cares about humans. Only such a god could give believers the solace they derive from religion; only such a god could inspire devotion in worshipers.
But it is worth considering what kind of person this god is portrayed as being. God is supposed to be a being who not only concerns Himself with every human in creation, but who keeps track of everything each of them does. We are told that God keeps a book in which are listed all the deeds, both good and bad, of all people. God remembers all transgressions and forgives them only when forgiveness is requested, repentance is genuine, and penance is done. Even worse, in Christianity, we are told that God has given to humanity—the humanity that He set up to fail in the Garden—a set of rules and requirements that they can never fulfill because of their own depravity. (Judaism and Islam at least—if it is better—take humanity to be perfectible and perfectly capable of following God's law; of course, failing to do so then is entirely one's own responsibility.) God looks like a super-Santa Claus, though somewhat more sinister, since His punishments and rewards are eternal even as His ways are inscrutable.
There are so many questions that can be lodged here. But, I only want to ask one type. What would we say of a friend or a relative who kept a detailed list of every transgression? Who never forgave one unless it was specifically mentioned in an apology and was then paid for? Who, in fact, used her mental energies to keep such a catalog? Who, even better, intentionally set goals that she knew we could not meet, all in order to show how much we rely on her? This would not be a good person. It would not be a person you would want to know. It would be a petty person. And, I don't think we would take such a person to be one who was concerned with us in any laudable way. If I remember how my partner upset me ten years ago, that is not praiseworthy, it does not demonstrate the strength of my love or my concern. It shows me to be a pretty horrible sort of person.
Now, I know that the ways of God are mysterious, but what reason—other than fear of punishment or hope of reward, i.e., egoism—would make one praise a being who was portrayed as so petty?

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